George Bush and several talented people around him have made the White House a power center in ways that I haven’t seen in a long time—all the way back to Lyndon Johnson. That is a big statement.
—Robert S. Strauss, former chairman of the Democratic Party and longtime presidential adviser
In the past, those who foolishly sought power by riding on the back of the tiger ended up inside.
—John F. Kennedy
The president’s job comes with surprisingly little power. The chief executive’s performance depends on the power the president can build—and keep. Richard Nixon discovered that truth the hard way. In just two short years, he went from one of the biggest electoral landslides in American history to a resignation in disgrace. Americans greeted Jimmy Carter’s sincerity but found him weak in dealing with the Iranian hostage crisis. Ronald Reagan was lionized, not only by conservatives but by many Americans. And Bush 41 fell from stratospheric personal popularity during the Gulf War to an embarrassing electoral defeat by Bill Clinton.
What’s the lesson? A president’s power doesn’t so much come from the office itself. Rather, presidential power comes from his ability to fill the reservoir of public trust and support, to draw down on it sufficiently to do important work, but not to drain it through missteps that undermine his standing.
It’s a mighty tall order. And the order is even taller if the president takes office with the reservoir already dry, as was the case for Bush 43. Without an electoral mandate, without a presidential honeymoon, with more than half of the nation’s voters having voted against him, and with almost everyone questioning his intelligence and ability, Bush faced tough odds. Add to that a Congress with a narrow Republican majority in the House and a 50-50 split in the Senate.
Setting a strategy, building a team, framing a message, and instilling discipline wouldn’t be enough. Bush walked into the Oval Office with as tough a job as any president in American history, and he had to find the reins of power over the rest of the government if he was to succeed—indeed, if he was even to survive.